Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:5-7 The mighty acts of God

Luke 1:5-7 “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well on in years.”

Luke’s gospel is a story of the coming of the mighty Lord, and in these opening verses we see his wheels beginning to move as Herod’s reign ends, as the Mosaic covenant approaches its end, and as barrenness ends by the Lord’s fertilizing power. Both men and nations are going to be transformed by the power of the Lord.

1. HEROD’S STAR WANES AS CHRIST’S LIGHT DAWNS.

Luke firmly earths the coming of Christ in history, not ‘long ago and far away,’ not ‘once upon a time,’ not in Narnia, not in Middle Earth, but during the reign of ‘the man’ the infamous tyrant Herod and in his kingdom of Judea (v.5). Was there a great revival of interest in religion when the Saviour was born? Had people grown weary of Greek philosophies and Roman law and Mediterranean pleasure-loving so that there was some universal hunger for redemption? No. There is no evidence for that at all. There is no naturalistic reason for the spread of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was born when Herod called the shots in Judea. Though Herod built the temple in Jerusalem he was never a religious man. He was ‘enlightened’! He was a ‘modern’ man! He did not fear God, did he? At this time he was about seventy years of age nearing the end of his life, but not more repentant and not more open to religion as death came closer, rather becoming more paranoid. He is mentioned here and in Matthew’s gospel chapter two but nowhere else in the Bible (the other Herod, whom Jesus called that ‘fox’, was his son). Yet we’ve all heard of his cruelty. He was the king who heard from the magi that they had seen a king’s star far away in the east and had followed it all the way to Jerusalem. When Herod discovered that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem he ordered all the boy babies in the town and its environs to be put to the sword. At seventy years of age he would still brook no future rivals! Did he imagine he could live for ever? That incident was typical of this brutish man. He was king for about the same length of time as the Lord Jesus lived. Herod had taken to himself the title of ‘king,’ and he reigned by the grace of the Romans. Marc Antony had appointed him to office; Herod was in Rome’s pocket.

Herod was a megalomaniac and so how did he show his power? He erected palace after palace. He was the one who was still building this very temple in Jerusalem where we are told (verse nine) Zechariah the priest was serving God when the angel came to him. He did not build to Jehovah only, Herod kept his options open and erected other temples in Judea honouring other gods. Tyrants have always built – big and gaudy. A dictator awards himself a new city, a castle, a monument in stone intended to intimidate and impress. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Despots build great palaces to show they are strong, or that they defy the world, or yo prove their worth to themselves. Or to hide in. When the plans for the Millennium Dome were unveiled Tony Blair said it would be the envy of the world. A billion pounds later it stands empty, a monument to Mr. Blair.

Herod had that same edifice complex that every despot has had ever since; Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Sadam all imagined vast cities in their own honour. Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets was to be higher than the Empire State Building. Saddam Hussein built 32 palaces. Herod’s greatest architectural extravagance presaged the waning of his power, it was the temple of Jerusalem which took seventy years to build. It would be leveled to the ground by the Romans within seventy more years. Its only rump still standing is the ‘Wailing Wall.’

Herod put up his buildings; Christ came to build a living church of people. Which has been more enduring? Christ shed his own blood to open his kingdom to all who would enter it. Christ would have us all share his throne. Herod’s reign was stained with the blood of others. He acted with relentless cruelty towards any challenge to his throne. Herod had made a youth Aristobulus High Priest at the age of 17, and then he watched with trepidation as the man became hugely popular. This threatened Herod too much and he had him drowned. Herod’s last years especially were characterized by bloody family horrors. He became jealous of his own sons and had a number of them murdered as well. He had his wife killed in a fit of jealousy. Josephus wrote, “His passion had made him stark mad and leaping out of his bed he ran around the palace in a wild manner.’ His sister Salome seized an opportunity of slandering beloved Miriam, Herod’s daughter whom he lusted after. Salome told Herod that a man called Joseph was her lover. “Kill them both this minute,” he commanded. Caesar Augustus said of him: “It was better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children.” Herod was like many rulers in the 20th century who used their power to destroy any who might threaten them, men of bestiality and unspeakable cruelty, merciless men. Luke tells us that it was at during this reign that the Son of God came into Herod’s kingdom on his commando raid of redemption. He dared to pitch his tent in Judea and set up a banner for truth. I today am presenting you with this stark choice, man or Christ? Herod and the kingdoms that men build so ruthlessly, or Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God built by grace. If you reject my Saviour all you have is man. It will be man determining what life is all about; man determining what is right and wrong; man’s redemptive power and regenerating energy – that is all you’ve got – man! I warn you not to put your confidence in princes

2. THE MOSAIC COVENANT WANES AS THE NEW COVENANT DAWNS.

As we begin to read Luke’s narrative one thing immediately leaps right off the page and hits us between the eyes, we are still in the Old Testament. Herod a king of Judea? Hellooo! What is this? There are no kings in the church today, and few left in the world, and Judea? It no longer exists; it was a part of the division of Israel during the Old Testament period. A priest whose name is Zechariah? There are no priestly divisions in the church today; each man and woman who trusts in Jesus Christ all the world over is a priest to God. We affirm the priesthood of all believers, and in the church while there are certainly the divisions of preachers, elders and deacons, there’s not any order of priests, no descendants of Aaron any more than there are judges, Levites, kings or prophets. But here in Luke chapter one and verse five we are introduced to Zechariah and what is he doing? He is being a priest, “Serving as a priest before God . . . chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (v.8). What is this? It is Old Testament religion, but we are reading from the New Testament, from the gospel of Luke, and I have already reminded you (rather unnecessarily) that we’ve spent the last twelve months studying two books from the Old Testament, and so now it was the time to balance that with a New Testament series. Yet here we are in Luke’s gospel and the first thing we come across is some holy real estate called ‘Judea,’ and some orders, offices, rituals, and structures very far removed from the church’s experience today. What is going on?

We answer the question in this way, that the time of the life of Jesus Christ described in the gospels, and also the period covered in the early chapters of the book of Acts is a unique epoch in the history of God’s dealing with this world. It is a time of the overlapping of the old covenant and the new covenant, the phasing out of the one and the bringing in of the other. The two testaments joined together in the Bible are not like two railway carriages coupled together. The link is much more organic rather like the link between your chest and your stomach with no exact and precise line indicating where the chest region ends and the stomach region begins. Each assumes and depends upon the livingness of the other.

People like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon who had been Old Testament believers for years came under the influence of the Lord Jesus and imperceptibly they became New Testament believers, but that process took a long time. These Jewish Christians gradually shed their Old Testament practices like keeping annual feasts in Jerusalem and worshipping in the Temple, but for years they did the both. Maybe numbers of them never gave up some of the distinctive Old Testament practices, and God was gracious about that. It was not very important at that time. Of course today, should anyone attempt to rebuild the temple and set up feasts every few months in Jerusalem, then that would be hideous. The Lamb of God has died!

So we read the New Testament and we see this process; ‘Old Testament’ believers who then become ‘Old Testament plus New Testament’ believers, and finally they become ‘New Testament alone’ believers and this kind of believer must be the only kind of believer there can be until the end of the world. I cannot see any scheme of future events in which there is some renewed concentration of divine activity on Jerusalem and Judea. I cannot see that such a plan for the future can have any place at all in the church; the conversion of many Jews and Gentiles, yes, I can see that, but no geographical return to Judea and to Jerusalem and to the practices of Luke chapter one. The whole New Testament movement is out from Jerusalem to Judea and the ends of the earth and then one day the Lord comes back.

So we are reading from Luke’s gospel in the New Testament but the scene has to be set in Israel, and especially this first chapter must contain many elements of the Old Testament because the one true and living God has been dealing with these people in this land for centuries, maintaining a remnant, a holy seed for generations, and here they are again in the interface of the Old and New Testaments. They are the remnant waiting in hope for the Messiah who is coming to redeem Israel. Enormous changes will occur when he appears, and he was on his way. The Promised One was on the doorstep, knocking for admission and then for transformation. The new covenant is almost here.

So at the beginning of the New Testament we must be introduced to Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew born in Judea under the law of Moses earthed in the old covenant’s practices, but as we move on through the New Testament to the Pastoral Epistles, the letters to Timothy and Titus, written right at the end of the apostles’ lives, we leave Israel’s structures behind and we get the reverse picture. Those final letters are almost all about New Testament structures, though they may not ignore the Old Testament. All of Paul’s letters rest upon it, indeed it is in the Pastoral Epistles that we are told that all the Scriptures of the Old Testament are God-breathed [2 Tim. 3:16]. You have to remember that for almost a generation the early church had no written New Testament scriptures at all; they simply had the Old Testament. I am saying that within the New Testament there is a progress from the overwhelmingly Jewish nature of the beginnings of the Messiah to a time when the outreach to the whole Gentile world dominates everything. By that time the ceremonial and civil aspects of the old covenant have gone, their work being over.

How glad we are that God first began to work in Judea, and the record of his dealings has been preserved in the Word of God. How we need to be reminded as Christians of the importance and relevance of the Old Testament Scriptures. Where else will we learn so clearly of creation, our first parents, the fall of man, the promise of God to send Someone Special – the Seed of the woman – to bruise the serpent’s head? Only from the book of Genesis. We learn from the Old Testament of the nature and character of Almighty God and his demands on people like Zechariah and Elizabeth. They lived a righteous life, and what would that entail? We are told in the sixth verse, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” If you love the Lord you keep his commandments. The Lord has made his commandments and regulations the clearest parts of the Old Testament, and they are in the Bible for our sake today.

I am saying to you that we need the Old Testament’s ethics to teach us how we are to live in the 21st century; that is why God gave them. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Roms. 15:4). Let me illustrate this, for example, in considering the evil of spiritism, in other words, of trying to communicate with the dead, and those sorts of occult practices so dangerously fashionable today, of Ouija boards and moving glasses. How are we to respond to that sort of thing, when, for example, you are in a boring party and someone laughingly suggests that in order to spice it up they got out an Ouija board? It’s to the Old Testament Scriptures we turn for guidance about the occult, for example, to the book of Deuteronomy chapter 18 and verses nine to fourteen. There it solemnly warns us of indulging in such evils. Or we can turn to these words in Isaiah 8 and verses nineteen and twenty, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people enquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” Again, though Scripture does not prohibit the drinking of intoxicating wine it certainly does pronounce upon the evil of drunkenness, and nowhere as sternly as Proverbs chapter 23 and verses twenty-nine to thirty-five. Those are some examples of the value of the Old Testament for setting out boundary posts for our daily behaviour.

I began by remarking on the discontinuity found in the Scriptures between Old Testament religion and New Testament, but now let me underline their essential theocentric and moral unity. The Old Testament and the New Testament are two sides of one coin. For a moment compare the Bible to a biography in two volumes, say Iain Murray’s classic history of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Think how frustrating it would be if you possessed only the second volume and never held the first volume. What a disadvantage to come in half way through that thrilling story. The unity of the Bible shows itself in five ways,

i] In confirmation, the normative words and deeds of Jesus confirm the earlier lines of revelation.

ii] In finalization, the earlier revelation embedded the truth in provisional forms and then it is stated in its final form.

iii] In dependence, the final statement of a truth assuming all that has gone before. It is not able to be understood without reference to the earlier words or events.

iv] In reaffirmation, in other words, that some items of the Old Testament, like the flood and destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, might seem to be out of step with the revelation of God in Christ until Jesus himself reaffirms them.

v] In completion; that is, that the Bible expresses a progressive revelation, an accumulating body of truth in which the New Testament rounds out the Old.

What is Luke chapter one telling us? One great lesson is that the religion Theophilus and ourselves are confronted with here in Luke chapter one certainly did not begin in the first century. God had prepared the world for the coming of Christ since men fell. Then it tells us something else, that this older revelation from God certainly did not belong to the realm of the mere external. Read these songs of praise of Mary and Zechariah in this chapter. Consider the conversation of Elizabeth, and in the next chapter the faith of Simeon and Anna. Here are Old Testament Messiahists and they are affectionately involved in the temple and the altar, the feasts and sacrifices set out in Leviticus. Those ceremonies and regulations had immense spiritual significance to such men and women as themselves, and to thousands like them. They knew that they were types but not mere types. They were divinely designed types; they were pictures pointing forward to the work the great Messiah would one day do. He was their hope – the One who one day would redeem Israel. They were waiting with a living hope for him.

Again here is religion with assurance. Didn’t these old covenant worshippers have the confidence of forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God because the sacrifice of the blameless had been made? Read the words of Zechariah’s praise to God. The Lord says of John the Baptist that “He will give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (v.77) – not bad for an Old Testament believer to hear! These fascinating individuals were doing exactly what Jehovah told them to do, “Bring your sacrifice and come to me by the priests I have appointed.” The whole design of the Jerusalem temple and its sacrifices was ordered to point to the coming Messiah and his all-sufficient sacrifice and high-priesthood. Luke knows that he is not a Jew, but rather that he is a Gentile, and yet he is now brother of this Jewish couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. He is not embarrassed at all by commencing his gospel describing this Old Testament setting for the coming of Christ. That is absolutely essential.

Both Luke and Zechariah could take on their lips the prayer of David from Psalm 51 and cry to God, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psa. 51:7). They all wanted to experience the spiritual realities of which the sacrifices were the visible and tangible symbols. They all knew those warnings of Moses and the prophets urging Israel not to rely upon the outward covenant sign of circumcision. They knew they had to have the inward spiritual experience of which circumcision was the visible and tangible sign. We find it recorded in Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem,” (Jer. 4:4). That is exactly what these devout people had done. They knew that true religion was the life of God in the souls of men.

Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Luke and Theophilus were all true Israelites though Jews and Gentiles. They were true Israelites not because they were the natural descendants of Abraham through Jacob, because both Luke and Theophilus were not, but they all trusted in that same Lord in whom Abraham had put his trust. Paul says to the Galatian Christians who were mostly Gentile believers – “If you are Christ’s, then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:29). So Luke and Theophilus would not feel that they were Johnny-come-latelys or second class Christians. God had started with the Jews; they alone he had known of all the nations of the earth. So the New Testament must start with the Jews, but then God invited the Gentiles also into his banqueting house and his banner over them was the very same love.

Luke knew his Scriptures and saw that at various points in the Old Testament Gentiles like himself had been incorporated into Israel—a Rahab, a Ruth, a Uriah, an Ebedmelech. Christ would not be a High Priest in the order of Aaron but in the order of the non-Jew, Melchizedek. From the very first it was God’s purpose that the covenant of grace would be with Gentiles all over the world – with us also in Wales. Luke knew he was as much a fellow-heir of God as his spiritual brother Joseph. Mary Jones walking to Bala for a Bible would be the eternal sister of Joseph’s betrothed, Mary, walking to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Together we become fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ through the gospel we believe. Theophilus too could become such an heir of Christ the same way too. Theophilus the Gentile and Zechariah the Jew were going to be eternal brothers, no longer Jew and Gentile but one new man through the work of the Messiah of God. The experience of Elizabeth and Mary in the Old Testament was not an altogether different experience from that of Luke. All of them had to have experienced the new birth, the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. They had to have the law of God written upon their hearts.

3. BARRENESS WANES BEFORE THE LORD’S FERTILIZING POWER.

The first people to whom Luke introduces us are Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, a couple of elderly believers. They are spoken of in words of the highest commendation; “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (v.6). In what sense were Zechariah and Elizabeth blameless? It would be exceedingly strange if Luke meant that Zechariah was sinless until the day Gabriel approached him, and then for the first time he fell into a sin. Walking in all God’s commandments blamelessly does not mean sinless perfection. In the book of Psalms the ‘righteous’ are not wholly sinless people. They were those who do not rest in their own righteousness. They are those who repent when they daily sin and they trust in God’s mercy. They are those whose direction in life consists of keeping God’s commandments – that’s their way of life, though they’ve never kept it perfectly. When Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth observed all the Lord’s commandments he does not want us to infer that they never once coveted, or sulked, or were angry, or had bad thoughts. It means that that was not the normal track or the predominant attitude of their lives. ‘Blameless’ means consistency and integrity; it means no one could point a finger of blame at them.

Paul uses this word of himself and Christians generally. He says to the Philippians 2:14f., “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phils. 2:14). Then to the Thessalonian Christians he says, “You are witnesses and God also how holy and righteous and blameless was our behaviour to you believers” (I Thess. 2:10), and yet Paul clearly denied his own perfection, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on” (Phils. 3:12). Here in Luke chapter one we are introduced to a peerless elderly Christian couple, super people, known in their neighbourhood for their kindness and grace, living in such a way as to give no one any occasion to hold anything against them.

So this blameless couple of Christians, full of the Spirit of God, had everything, right? They ‘really believed’ in God and so they could ‘name it and claim it’, right? They had health and wealth, right? No. Wrong. They were blameless, and yet there was a huge hole at the centre of their lives. The emptiness was caused by their not having land and flocks and silver and gold. They had had no children; not an infant. They could examine their lives and could ask, “Have we done anything wrong? Is this God chastening us for some reason? Have we prayed enough? How have we offended God?” And they came to the correct conclusion that they had not sinned against God, and it was for no sin of theirs that God was judging them by withholding from them the gift of children. The Lord would not tell them why they’d had no babies.

No doubt there’d been some people they’d bumped into throughout their lives who had hinted to Elizabeth that the fault was hers, and that there were secret sins which she needed to confess – “You can’t fool God my girl . . .” There were also plenty of quacks who suggested to her some sure-fire way of conceiving through a mixture of frogspawn and cow dung and cobwebs, or that Friday the thirteenth when there was a full moon would be a propitious time. Others said to one another, “Look how religious she and her husband are, always going off to Jerusalem to that temple, but what has the Lord done for them? I’ve got six children and she’s got none. I don’t think you’ve got to be as religious as some people.” Poor Elizabeth was having to weigh up all these counsels. A sign of God’s blessing under the old covenant was to make his people fruitful. So for her and Zechariah not having children was a private sorrow that they had constantly had to think about and had learned to accept from God, not knowing why he had sent barrenness.

We know that at that time and place in human history it was a much bigger problem than we might imagine. When Elizabeth finally became pregnant she said to her cousin Mary, “The Lord has done this for me . . . in these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people” (v.25). Bad enough that the crib was empty, but then to feel that she had brought disgrace on the family – how sad. Yet the poignancy was that the cause of the infertility might not have been hers but Zechariah’s. Elizabeth was made to feel it was a disgrace to be a daughter of Abraham and be childless, because she had failed to provide an heir for her husband. She could not be the one through whom the Seed of the woman would one day be born because now she and Zechariah were well along in years.

However, Elizabeth received that providence from God blamelessly. She was not angry with God. She did not challenge his wisdom and sovereignty. She did not say, “Well, I shall have a child anyway. I will find a way . . . there are ways you know . . .” She did not do what Sarah did in that identical position and send her maid to sleep with her husband Abraham that a child bearing her husband’s name should be conceived through her. No. Elizabeth took this cup of barrenness that God had put in her hand to drink and she drank it and she called on the name of the Lord for the grace of contentment. It was a bitter affliction. You remember Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, who was in an identical plight? How she prayed! With what earnestness and arguments she assaulted the throne of grace. We are told, “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow, saying, ‘O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (I Sam. 1:11).

Let me explain this again from the perspective of Elizabeth living in the hill country of Judea two thousand years ago. Her sorrow had little to do with modern expectations of women climbing the corporate ladder in the business world, and then, for self fulfillment, at a time of their own choosing, usually in their late thirties, deciding, “Now I will have a baby too.” It was not like that. Zechariah and Elizabeth expected to have heirs, children to whom they would pass on their land and name, children who in turn would look after them in old age. There was no state aid, no social security, and not even a workhouse. While the poor family-less elderly could still walk they could glean the corn field after the reapers had taken the main crop, and then they could beg. They cast themselves on the mercy of their neighbours. This was the future of this great old couple; this was at the back of their minds.

J.C.Ryle says, “Blameless as this holy priest and his wife were, they had a ‘crook in their lot.’ Let us remember this, if we serve Christ, and let us count trial no strange thing. Let us rather believe that a hand of perfect wisdom is measuring out all our portion, and that when God chastises us, it is to make us ‘partakers of his holi­ness.’ (Hebrews 12:10.) If afflictions drive us nerarer to Christ, the Bible, and prayer, they are positive blessings. We may not think so now; but we shall think so when we wake up in another world.” Bishop Ryle is reminding us that God never guarantees that the Christian life will come without pain and disappointment. Sometimes God gives us the wine of astonishment to drink.

You remember what I often say to you, that we either get from God what we ask for or we get something better. There is no alternative to those options because God is always working all things together for our good. When we wait patiently on the Lord he often gives us more than we imagined possible. Zechariah and Elizabeth waited on God longing for a child; what they eventually got was a prophet. God’s ways are set to his own timing; they can also be filled with things that make us afraid.

There is a woman whom I have loved all her life, and there have been few days when I have not prayed for her. She has been married for fourteen years and God has been pleased not to give her children. Her sisters have children and she has been a loving aunt and her husband a terrific uncle to their nephews and niece, but they have had no children of their own. They refused I.V.F treatment as it involved destroying fertilized eggs, and so their doctor washed his hands of them in exasperation. She has been taught a wonderful contentment from God and been able to help other women in the same condition. Then earlier last month she called me and she told me coyly that she was expecting a baby. I wept in joy with her. How God has honoured her submission to his good and perfect will. Now we are seeking to mortify our nervousness, and that God will keep her throughout the months ahead as he kept Elizabeth, and give her in her 39th year her heart’s desire.

Elizabeth and Zechariah had to wait a long time and that was part of God’s plan. He stepped in late changing the whole of the remainder of their lives. The blessing was sweeter once it came because when baby John arrived he was never taken for granted. He was to them very evidently what all children are, a gift from God. The fruit of the womb is God’s reward. The coming of this child to Zechariah and Elizabeth was the earnest of God’s coming to the nation and blessing coming to many. Sometimes we can see the wisdom of God’s timing.

God knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.

This history is much more than parents’ delight in having a child. It is about the fulfilment of God’s great promises. But when he does accomplish his purposes the needs and hopes and fears of God’s little people are not ignored because the Lord is the God who does much more than we ask or think. He is a God of abounding and prodigal love. He blesses the world and at the same time he looks after our smaller concerns. He will save the world – though some will be lost – but all his people will know his blessing.

April 1 2007 GEOFF THOMAS